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What Reform UK says about the condition of England

Under Richard Tice, the right-wing populist party has forced Westminster to pay attention – with poll ratings surpassing those of the Lib Dems.

By New Statesman

Until recently, Reform UK was an afterthought in British politics. As the successor to the Brexit Party – which won the 2019 European elections – many dismissed it as an irrelevance in a world in which the UK had left the EU.

But Reform, led by the former MEP Richard Tice (who the New Statesman first interviewed in 2021) and backed by Nigel Farage, has now forced Westminster to pay attention. Its average poll ratings have surpassed those of the Liberal Democrats – around 12 per cent – and it is attracting more than a fifth of 2019 Conservative voters. On 11 March, Reform secured its first MP when Lee Anderson, who lost the Tory whip for suggesting London mayor Sadiq Khan was controlled by Islamists, joined the party. Reform is now hopeful of overtaking the Conservatives in the polls by the summer.

Under Britain’s first-past-the-post system, the radical right has always struggled to achieve parliamentary representation – Ukip never held more than two MPs (although nearly four million people voted for the party at the 2015 general election). But it has long wielded disproportionate influence. Mr Farage, who topped our Right Power List last year, did more than any other politician to create the conditions for Brexit. More recently he has helped force government U-turns on net zero and action against small boat crossings. We should judge Reform’s impact in similar terms.

It may win few (if any) seats at the next general election  but it threatens to help deliver a landslide Tory defeat. As the former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell notes on page 12, the party could win “millions of votes” and prompt renewed discussion of electoral reform.

Reform will also influence the next Conservative manifesto. The party favours “net zero immigration” (net migration stood at 672,000 in the year to June 2023) and aggressive tax cuts: it would reduce corporation tax from 25 per cent to 15 per cent over the next five years, abolish inheritance tax for all estates below £2m and raise the 40p income tax threshold from £50,271 to £70,000. It is an agenda pitched at those who believe the chief problem with Suella Braverman and Liz Truss was their moderation.

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But in some areas, Reform departs from right-wing consensus. It has called for the part-nationalisation of energy and water suppliers (with the state taking a 50 per cent share in firms and British pension funds the remaining half). Here the party is more aligned with public opinion. A 2022 study by the think tank Onward found that “every single constituency in the UK is, on average, to the left on the economy and to the right on culture”.

Polling shows that voters favour lower immigration and tougher crime policies but also public ownership of utilities, higher taxation of the wealthy and stronger workers’ rights.

Yet at present, with the exception of the Social Democratic Party (which has two councillors), there is no British political party that occupies this ideological terrain. After the Tories’ 2019 election victory, when the party won dozens of former Labour seats, some suggested it could fill the void. But Boris Johnson was always a dubious leader of this supposed realignment. After his downfall, the Tory party retreated back to its economic comfort zone. Both Ms Truss and Rishi Sunak champion the goal of low taxes and limited government and exhibit no interest in the cause of “levelling up” or industrial strategy.

The next Conservative leadership election is likely to be defined by such ideological assumptions. Candidates will argue over who would be the most radical tax cutter or state shrinker. The possibility that the Conservatives have been too indulgent of free market ideas will not be countenanced. As such, the cause of left conservatism – as espoused in Germany by the former Left leader Sahra Wagenknecht’s new party – will remain unclaimed.

Reform UK, whose ranks include many free-market libertarians, will not change this. It will instead serve as a right-wing pressure group that extracts concessions from the Conservatives. But its rise shows the political openings that anti-Tory hostility is creating. As well as Labour, ideologically nimble insurgents stand to benefit.

[See also: Britain’s fiscal fantasies]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
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